The past through the Web

This week’s (and the second-last–it’s wrapping up at the end of this month) CBC Web column…


“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” author L.P. Hartley famously wrote to begin his 1953 novel The Go-Between. And like most foreign countries, while we might not want to live there, we often enjoy visiting it.

And where better to visit it than on the World Wide Web, which, I’ve decided for the sake of a metaphor, is rapidly becoming the world’s attic. It’s the place where you put old things you don’t quite know what to do with but aren’t willing to get rid of, with the big difference that, unlike your attic, the whole world is free to rummage around in the stuff you put there.

Of course, there are millions of sites devoted to the past in some form, but I decided to focus on a few that bolster my “Internet/attic” theme. They also happen to be personal favorites.

I’ll start with the more distant past. There are thousands of sites devoted to various historical eras, but one site I’ve really been enjoying isn’t about the usual sort of history. Rather than being focused on text, it’s focused on images. It’s called BiblioOdyssey. A fellow named Paul, who lives in Sydney, runs the site—blog, really—and he describes it as “wonderful things made by other people.”

It’s an excellent description. Paul scours the net for fantastic images from old documents and posts his finds.

When I visited the site, for example, the top post was from Wolfenbüttel Digital Library, and displayed a fascinating series of illustrations of the rulers of Hungary from the 10th century up until 1664, which is when the book they’re taken from was published. (It’s extremely long Latin name translates as Mausoleum of the Most Powerful Kings and Dukes of Hungary.)

Below that, Paul had posted some gorgeous examples of ornamental typography from the 16th, 17th and 18th century; below that, beautiful colored images from a 15th century edition of the famous maps drawn by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy around 160 A.D. And so on, and so on.

There are ample links to the original sources of all this material, so that a visit to BibliOdyssey can quickly draw you into some of the oldest and most intriguing sections of the Internet attic.

Of course, not very many people have stuff from the 15th century in their attics, so I may be undercutting my thesis here. Let’s look at some sites focusing on the more recent past, shall we?

One of my interests, of course, is science and technology, and as it happens, there are some terrific sites that focus on old technology: inventions that never took off, early versions of the things we take for granted today, all that kind of stuff.

One I found is The Museum of Retro Technology, which has pretty awful page design but lots of interesting information.

Where else can you find out about the the Leyland Steam lawnmower, one of the first power mowers, produced for just a few years at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries? Oil-fired, about six feet tall, and requiring careful maintenance to ensure that it didn’t rupture and maim or kill its operator, it was not built in large numbers.

At the same site, you’ll discover that James Bond was not the first to carry lethal gadgets: there are images of a knife, spoon and fork set, each of which has a built-in flintlock pistol, dating back to 1715. (Oddly, the barrels point at the user, not other guests, so it’s hard to imagine exactly how they would have been used, unless one was literally interested in shooting off one’s mouth.)

Another retro-tech site I’ve been enjoying is another blog. It’s called Modern Mechanix, and it consists entirely of photos and articles scanned out of old copies of Modern Mechanix, Mechanics Illustrated, Popular Science and similar magazines.

The most recent offerings when I last dropped by included an article from the July, 1940, issue of Popular Science about one George Spiegel of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who liked to attach special lightweight reed pipes to the tail feathers of his pigeons so that “when they fly, a musical whistling flows from their feathers,” and, from the August, 1934, issue of Modern Mechanix, an item on the fascinating invention of Paul H. Rowe, a Los Angeles sound engineer: an automatic device that would answer his phone and record a message when he was out.

Yeah, like that would ever catch on.

One thing lots of people have in their attics are old photographs, and, yes, there are sites devoted to them.

My favorite goes by the unusual name of Shorpy. I’ll let it describe itself: “ is the 100-year-old photography blog that brings our ancestors back, at least to the desktop. The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a boy who worked in an Alabama coal mine near the turn of the century.”

The photos on Shorpy are high-resolution, and range in time from the dawn of photography up until about the 1940s. Recent photos have included images of the damage caused to southern towns by cannon fire during the Civil War, sharecroppers living in poverty in the Deep South, child workers in early 20th century textile mills, incredibly vibrant color images of women working in airplane factories during the Second World War, and a picture taken from a New York skyscraper very early in the last century.

One of the most interesting things about Shorpy: anyone can join and upload their own vintage photographs—whether found in the attic or not.

Of course, we don’t just rummage in the attic to be educated or wax nostalgic. Sometimes we like to point and laugh at stuff from old fads. Are, yes, there sites that get a lot of fun out the past.

One of the best, is The Institute of Official Cheer, which is a section of the website run by James Lileks, a former columnist and now a daily blogger for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He’s also the author of several books that poke fun at the recent past, including The Gallery of Regrettable Food and Gastroanomalies, both of which offer up awful-sounding (and looking) recipes from the past, and my favorite, Interior Desecrations, which pokes fun at 1970s interior design. Online, you can find outtakes from some of those books, plus lots of other stuff: he pokes fun at bad comic books, old ads, postcards of motels from all over North America, and…well, just about anything he can find and scan.

After all, while the past is a different country, it’s unlike a real country in one important aspect: you can point your finger at all the funny things its residents did and laugh all you want without offending anyone.

Just remember, in fifty year’s time, our descendants will be pointing and laughing at us, too.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Easy AdSense Pro by Unreal